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April 1, 2023

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On 9/11, Robert Ezelle monitored the Western skies. 20 years later, as he leads Washington’s pandemic response, he sees parallels


After a career spent responding to crises, calamities and disasters, for Robert Ezelle, two stand out.

One is the coronavirus pandemic, which as Washington’s director of Emergency Management, has consumed the last year-and-a-half of Ezelle’s life.

The other is 9/11, which as a colonel in the Washington Air National Guard, left Ezelle responsible for monitoring air traffic that day for the entire western United States.

“These two are by far the biggest challenges of my career,” Ezelle said. Since becoming the state’s emergency management director in 2013, Ezelle has dealt with 12 major disaster declarations, including the four largest wildfire seasons on record, and one of the deadliest landslides in American history. “It has been a busy and challenging time, but 9/11 and COVID are clearly the most challenging of the scenarios we’ve had to deal with.”

Ezelle spent decades preparing for those roles. He served a full military career before moving to the state’s Emergency Management Division. He was in various leadership roles in the Washington Air National Guard for 17 years. Before that, he spent 13 years in the Air Force as a fighter pilot, instructor pilot and operations officer.

Ezelle, 65, sees parallels between the 9/11 attacks and the pandemic — in their novelty, in their lasting impacts on American life — and has tried to lean on that experience, from two decades ago, as he’s helped the state respond to a pandemic that hit Washington first and continues to drag on, 18 months later.

‘Something’s happening’

Twenty years ago this week, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Ezelle woke early.

He was always an early riser, but was up extra early that morning, because he was part of a training exercise with the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

At 6 a.m., he was driving from his home, right between Lakewood and University Place, to McChord Air Force Base in Pierce County. A month or so earlier he had been appointed director of operations for the Western Air Defense Sector, which monitors the skies of western North America for potential threats, and controls fighter jets on continuous alert, stationed across the continent.

Ezelle was listening to talk radio. He didn’t have a cellphone. He had a pager, but it hadn’t gone off.

Just 14 minutes earlier, a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

“The radio was talking about why the World Trade Center was important to terrorists and I’m listening to that and I’m just going ‘uh-oh, something’s happening,’” he said.

At 6:03 a.m. Pacific time, a plane hit the South Tower.

Again, he heard about it on the radio first.

As he was approaching the gate to McChord, his pager went off. He ran to the Western Air Defense Sector control center, a windowless, three-story, Cold War-era hulk of a building. The first thing he did was tell his scheduler to call every fighter unit in their part of the country — essentially everything west of the Mississippi — and tell them to start preparing jets to go up in the air.

“And I’ll take them with whatever weapons they can get on the airplane,” he said. “I told her if anybody questions you just tell them ‘real world events.’”

Within an hour, units from across the country were reporting back that they had jets ready to launch.

Six weeks or so later, Ezelle learned that the scheduler (her name was Pat) hadn’t seen the news and, at the time, had no idea what the “real world events” were.

At that point, Ezelle said, he’d realized the country was under attack and the job was trying to figure out what else might be out there.

By 7:03 a.m. Pacific time, two more airliners had crashed, one into the Pentagon and one into a field in eastern Pennsylvania.

“But we still didn’t know if that was it or if there were other airplanes we were dealing with,” Ezelle recalls.

By the end of the day they’d sent fighter units to patrol the skies over Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and a couple other major Western cities, Ezelle said.

Air Force command had also called Ezelle and asked his unit to be mission commander for the president’s trip from Florida back to Washington. That meant coordinating fighter units, a tanker, and an airborne warning and control system, a Boeing 707 with a big radar disk on top of it that provides surveillance around Air Force One.

“It was one of the craziest and worst days of my life, for very obvious reasons,” he said.

When he left the office, at around 11:30 that night, “it was just a totally surreal feeling.”

Walking out, he looked at a bank of glowing green radar scopes, normally packed bright with pixels indicating planes in the air. They were all blank, just a rotating green line illuminating empty skies.

“You see that line go around and there’s absolutely nothing there,” Ezelle said. “I’d never seen anything like it.”

And while the attacks would fundamentally reorder and alter countless aspects of American life, what stuck out to Ezelle, driving home that night, was the normalcy of it all. Street signs, porch lights, restaurants: they paid the calamity no mind.

“How everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster,” Auden wrote.

“It was just this picture of peace and calm,” Ezelle said. “It was just the strangest feeling, pulling into my driveway.”

It would be another three years, he said, before they got back to what he considered a “normal ops tempo.”

“We had trained for doing all sorts of crisis scenarios, we’d never exercised hijacked airplanes,” Ezelle said. “It was truly a novel situation.”

The pandemic: ‘it’s déjà vu’

The Washington Division of Emergency Management had talked about pandemics, had plans for pandemics. But, well, it’s still fair to call the last 18 months a “novel situation.”

“Being presented with the real thing, with the constant changes that we’ve seen the disease doing,” he said, “in many ways it’s similar to what we dealt with back on 9/11, just in terms of trying to adapt to something novel and figuring out how do we change processes and procedures to deal with the novel situation.”

“In some ways it’s déjà vu.”

In the pandemic’s earliest days, when Washington was the first state with a known case of the virus and the first state with known deaths from the virus, Ezelle worked to get badly needed masks, gowns, gloves, test kits, ventilators and other medical equipment to the state’s health care facilities, amid a worldwide shortage. He helped plan for field hospitals and other emergency measures, if the state’s hospitals were overwhelmed.

More recently, with the state Department of Health taking the lead, they’re helping with logistics, still distributing personal protective equipment and helping DOH manage and support the state’s health care system capacity.

Both events have and will continue to form “very deep rooted changes within our society,” Ezelle said.

In the pandemic’s earliest days, Ezelle gave his staff some sobering advice.

“Don’t anticipate this is going to be over anytime soon,” he recalled saying. “Plan on it lasting two to three years.”

And that’s perhaps the biggest parallel between the attacks of 20 years ago and the pandemic of today.

“It’s just a need to maintain focus,” Ezelle said. “To understand that we’re always in things for the long haul and there are no quick, easy answers or quick exits to tough, challenging problems.”